NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A local pastor recently returned from Liberia after attending his mother's funeral. He is clear of Ebola after a quarantine and is now working to fight the epidemic in his homeland.
"When my sister called me and told me that my mother was not well, that was the first thought, 'Is it Ebola?'"Reverend Dr. Wilmot Merchant, the pastor at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, says his mother did not die of Ebola. But his family was still concerned for him to return to Liberia for her funeral because of the epidemic.
He and his brother arrived in Liberia on August 20, 2014, for their mother's funeral. She died of congestive heart failure at the age of 82.
"When we got to the airport in Liberia they announced to us 'No shaking hands, no embracing,'" says Merchant.
Then after three days, they started their return trip to America. They had to fill out an extensive questionnaire about their health and what they came in contact with in Liberia. And they had their temperatures checked three times before boarding their flight out of Liberia. Both the reverend and his brother were cleared and allowed on board.
When they flew to New York City, the reverend says no one asked if they'd been to Liberia. They picked up their bags and came home. That's when they quarantined themselves.
"Anything could happen," said Merchant. "I and my brother both made sure we didn't do anything that would put us at risk."Reverend Merchant knew he had to go because his mother's last wish was to have him preach at her funeral.
But he made sure that at the viewing and funeral service, no one touched each other, shook hands, or hugged. That is something the Merchant says is so difficult, especially in Liberia.
"You're dealing with a culture that gives a lot of accommodation to the dead," says Merchant. "We want to bury the dead properly and with dignity. And the virus is preventing people from doing that."
But the reverend says some people are still following rituals that are perpetuating the Ebola outbreak. While Merchant was in Liberia, he made sure to wear long sleeves, wash his hands with chlorinated water, use hand sanitizer, and not touch people.
"Thank God we were not exposed to the virus," says Merchant. "But we saw while we were in Liberia how easily people could become exposed to the virus. Especially dealing with dead bodies."
Now, Merchant is working to fight back. He says in Liberia, they are in desperate need of medical supplies, funding and education to stop the vicious cycle.
"Every day, basically when my phone rings, I want to see whether it is a phone call from Liberia telling me someone has gotten the disease or not," says Merchant.
And that concern for his family and his fellow countrymen is spurring his mission to help. He says that in Liberia, if someone gets Ebola, it is basically a death sentence.
The reverend believes that the death toll will be astronomical by the end of the year if nothing changes in how we fight this epidemic.
"More often than not, people don't even know," says Merchant. "I mean, they think they are helping someone who is suffer from malaria or typhoid or some other illness. But it's Ebola. And before you know it, that contaminated person contaminates everyone else."
Merchant is raising money to help workers in Liberia go out to the remote villages to teach people how serious this disease is and what safety precautions they should follow.
And Merchant says the disease is also crushing everyone's ability to survive day to day in Liberia. Many families have now gone months without any income. So he plans on some of the funds going to help families cover daily expenses.
"People are not working," says Merchant. "People have been laid off. The government is trying to make sure people are not congregating in mass. But people have to live. You can't just lock yourself in home and find anything to eat. So they have to move around. But moving around at the same time, being conscious of the fact that one mistake -- and that's all it takes."
While his countrymen are doing their best just to survive, the reverend is teaming up with the Liberian Episcopal Community in the U.S. to fill a shipping container with much-needed medical supplies.
They'll be sending the supplies to Liberia on November 8 from an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C.
If you would like to help donate, you can drop off or mail a check to the reverend's church. Address the check to St. Stephen's Episcopal Church North Myrtle Beach and put in the memo line: Liberia Ebola Outbreak.
The church's address is 801 11th Ave. N., North Myrtle Beach, SC 29582.